There’s a civil war going on between two big-shot conservative talk-show hosts and the Republican Party is caught in the crosshairs.
This week, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough called out Fox News’ Glenn Beck for hate speech. He gave 2012 hopefuls an ultimatum. “We’re going to have a conservatives’ honor roll on this show…,” he told the Morning Joe audience. “I’m talking to you, Mitt Romney, and I’m talking about anyone who wants to be president in 2012. … You need to call out this type of hatred.”
Beck’s camp responded later that day, saying Scarborough “couldn’t be voted dog catcher” and claiming “this loser can’t get any coverage.”
So are any of the Republicans’ leading candidates for 2012 responding to Scarborough’s call? According to a Daily Beast survey, not so far—and those who have are approaching the question very gingerly.
"If you ask me what does Mitt Romney believe," Romney's spokesman said, "I will tell you he does not think that Barack Obama hates white people, nor does he believe as Jimmy Carter suggested that people who disagree with Obama’s policies are racist."
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who ran last time around and is seen as one of party’s best prospects, ducked commenting on the messenger, but tackled the message. “Mitt Romney is not going to get involved in a war of words between cable TV personalities from rival networks,” Romney’s spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, told The Daily Beast. “If you ask me what does Mitt Romney believe, I will tell you he does not think that Barack Obama hates white people, nor does he believe as Jimmy Carter suggested that people who disagree with Obama's policies are racist.”
Scarborough applauded the answer, but maintained Romney did not go far enough. “It sounds like Mitt Romney agrees with me. It sounds like he’s distancing himself from Beck, which is good,” Scarborough said in an interview Thursday. But, he added, “I think Romney would be better served offering denunciations, not glib comments about talk-show hosts.”
During the 2008 campaign, Romney made good use of Beck’s shows as a platform for his attacks on John McCain. In a January 7, 2008, radio interview, Beck praised Romney for his tough television ads. “You know what, would you please say the next time you have an opportunity in an attack ad with John frickin' McCain when he looks at you and talks about attacks ads, would you just say, oh, you mean the attack ads that are now allowed because of McCain-Feingold?” Beck said. Just this week, Beck said in an interview with Katie Couric that McCain would be doing a worse job than Obama if he had been elected.
Beck’s one knock on Romney was that he seemed too perfect: “You are so good and so well put together. I mean, look at your hair, man. You piss me off. What is it about Mitt Romney where there is a struggle? Where is the struggle in your life?”
A week later, Beck praised Romney as the man to fix the economy. “You have been my economy guy the whole time,” Beck told the candidate. “If somebody's got to deal with the economy, because of your experience of, you know, building companies and great turnarounds, you are the guy.” Beck closed the friendly conversation with a promise, “We'll talk to you again, my friend.”
At least Romney climbed into the ring in the Scarborough-Beck smackdown. Most of the GOP’s other bigshots ducked the debate. Messages to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Arizona Sen. John McCain, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and RNC Chairman Michael Steele went unreturned.
Of that bunch, Palin, Pawlenty, Cantor, Thune, Jindal, and Daniels are frequently mentioned as candidates for the 2012 nomination. They are all in a pickle, needing to distance themselves from Beck’s vitriol while at the same time not straying too far from a figure whose sometimes-outrageous statements have evidently not cost him support among conservatives. Pollster Nate Silver concluded Wednesday that in one recent survey Beck “actually makes out pretty well.”
Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and a man known for speaking his mind on a wide range of subjects, was “not available for comment,” his spokesman said. Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor and new head of the Republican Governors Association, who spent much of the summer on the road, raising money and his national profile, also declined to come to the phone. “The governor is tied up with some state business and will be for some time, so I don’t expect him to issue any comment on that.”
Texas Republican strategist Denis Calabrese said that Beck’s controversial profile—and enormous popularity--present party leaders with a tricky challenge.
“People are for aggressive questioning of the government and aggressive commentary about it. In general, it’s OK to defend Beck,” Calabrese said. “But it’s distracting. Debating the messenger is not to your advantage if you’re a Republican. The policies are what people are worried about. And the messengers are a distraction…On actual policies, the Republicans have an advantage right now, because people are recoiling from the growth of the scope and size of government.”
Scarborough, a former congressman who’s been mentioned as a possible 2012 contender himself, said that standing by Beck is not a politically viable option.
“At some point they are going to have to answer the question. At that point we’ll see what their vision is of the Republican Party,” he said. “This is cut and dried. This is easy,” Scarborough said of the party’s need to separate itself from Beck. “And if these leaders don’t have the courage to stand up to this, do they have the courage to run the country? I don’t think so.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.